Opinion: Denali Redux?

On August 30, on the eve of President Obama’s mission to Alaska to sound the warning about climate change, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell announced that 20,237-foot Mount McKinley, North America’s highest peak, would officially be renamed Denali—a Tanana Athabaskan cognomen meaning “the High One” or “the Big One.” (See incredible recent photos of Denali by Aaron Huey.)

Since the late 1960s, climbers—and many Alaskans—have stubbornly employed the heretofore unofficial “Denali,” though when I climbed the Wickersham Wall (north face) in 1963, there was no alternative to McKinley. One of the worst names on the map of the United States was the brain-dead-child of a prospector named William A. Dickey (no relation to the Yankee catcher of the same name), who emerged from the wilderness in 1896 to learn that the Ohio politician William McKinley had been nominated for the presidency.

McKinley never visited Alaska, nor is there any record that he gave a damn about Seward’s Icebox. Dickey liked to believe that he had discovered the mountain, though it had been spotted by George Vancouver from Cook Inlet in 1794, and another prospector, Frank Densmore, had raved so vociferously in 1889 about the view of the peak from the north that his fellow miners sardonically dubbed it Densmores Peak.

Three years after Dickey’s fiat, government explorer Joseph Rand Herron slapped the name of another Ohio politician, Joseph B. Foraker, on McKinley’s 17,402-foot companion, even though the then senator and former governor had no more interest in Alaska than his pal McKinley. The Tanana apparently referred to Foraker as Menlale, or “Denali’s wife,” but Sally Jewell has yet to propose a new label for this splendid peak.

In the current renaming debate—only diehard Ohioans, led by the lachrymose John Boehner, deplore the eradication of McKinley—much lip service has been paid to the reverence for nature of the natives who lived for millennia north and south of the Alaska Range. Those folks, however, seem to have had little more use for the high, remote wilderness than did the prospectors or the politicos. According to pioneering explorer Alfred H. Brooks, “the Alaska native seldom goes beyond the limit of smooth walking and has a superstitious horror of even approaching glacial ice.” On the second Anglo-American traverse of the Alaska Range, Herron’s native guides left him in a near-fatal lurch by deserting in the middle of the night.

The naming mess is further complicated by the fact that since 1965, the twin summits of McKinley/Denali have been officially designated as the Churchill Peaks. This absurd nomenclature came about because President Lyndon Johnson couldn’t spare the time spent bombing Vietnam to attend Sir Winston’s funeral in Westminster Abbey.

Book your next trip with Peace of Mind
Search Trips

Bad geographical names are a treasured part of our heritage. No activists have yet succeeding in relabeling Mount Everest either Chomolungma or Sagarmatha. K2 may be the worst name of all—a numerical placeholder in lieu of a real appellation—but it rings in climbers’ ears as a touchstone for the ultimate. Pikes Peak and Longs Peak were named for explorers who declared their ascent impossible.

I call North America’s apex Denali. But in my cups, when I fondly relive our 35-day struggle up the untouched Wickersham Wall, it’s still Mount McKinley.

Author David Roberts has climbed several dozen new routes in Alaska over fifteen years, and has written six books all or part of which are about climbing in the state. His new bookALONE ON THE WALL, is coauthored with its subject, Alex Honnold.

Read This Next

Grief drove a photographer to India. She found joy.
Why do we age?
What causes earthquakes?

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet